A Symphony: New England Holidays
Referring to his New England Holidays, an assemblage of four orchestral works written between 1903 and 1913, Ives stated that "they are separate pieces and can be thought of and played as such. These four together were called a symphony, and later just a set of pieces...." Taking a jab at critics who were appalled at his brash style, Ives further explained his reasons for viewing the work in this way: "I was getting somewhat tired of hearing the lily boys say 'This is a symphony? Mercy!'" Like so many of Ives' works, New England Holidays finds its inspiration in nostalgic recollections of the composer's childhood. Each of the four constituent tone poems takes as its title a different holiday that evoked for the composer memories with specific musical associations.
The first movement, "Washington's Birthday," portrays a midwinter barn dance, complete with strains of "Turkey in the Straw" and "Camptown Races." In his own notes that accompany the score, Ives describes it thus: "The village band of fiddles, fife and horn keep up an unending 'break-down' medley, and the young folks 'salute their partners and balance corners' till midnight; --as the party breaks up, the sentimental songs of those days are sung half in fun, half seriously, and with the inevitable 'adieu to the ladies' the 'social' gives way to the grey bleakness of the February night.”
The second movement, "Decoration Day," recalls the holiday once set aside to honor Civil War veterans (since replaced by Memorial Day). After the crowd gathers at the square, the processional embarks for the cemetery to the tune of "How Firm a Foundation." The assembly's arrival at its destination is marked by the playing of "Taps," combined with strains of "Nearer My God to Thee." This somber moment is contrasted by the peppy parade back into town, accompanied by Ives' raucous reinterpretation of the "Second Connecticut National Guard March.”
The third movement, "The Fourth of July," calls for various pyrotechnic feats on the part of the orchestra. Ives' impression of this holiday takes shape as a complicated combination of well-known marches and tunes as well as newly composed material, offset by odd beats and assembled into a spirited, mischievous whole. Characteristically, Ives makes use of much nineteenth century musical material with patriotic associations: "Yankee Doodle," "Battle Hymn of the Republic," "Columbia, Gem of the Ocean," and "Battle Cry of Freedom," all make prominent appearances during this schizophrenic, multilayered celebration.
"Thanksgiving," which brings New England Holidays to a close, attempts, as Ives explains, to portray "the sternness and strength and austerity of the Puritan character" in its stubborn polytonality and forceful texture. Though "Thanksgiving" makes reference to several hymns, one in particular receives added emphasis in a setting for chorus. As the movement reaches its climax, the voices exclaim: "Oh God, beneath Thy guiding hand our exiled fathers crossed the sea; and when they trod the wintry strand, with prayer and psalm the worshipped Thee.”
[Article taken from All Music Guide]
Certainly one of Ives’ most startling yet mesmerizing works. This work sounds like it could have been titled A Symphony: New England Seasons
as much as it using the word ‘Holidays’ as the piece takes us on an aural tour through all four seasons in typical Ivesian fashion. For those who haven’t watch Tilson Thomas’ Keeping Score
documentary on this work then please run, don’t walk, over to Amazon and pick up the DVD (or Blu-ray). This documentary helped cement my fascination and admiration of this symphony. Of course, MTT with the Chicago SO would be my first-choice in terms of recorded performances. Sinclair offers a fine alternative performance, although his Holidays
are spread out and not grouped together, which was what Ives later in life preferred. Rafael, if you’re reading this, Holidays
is right up your alley after having your ears assaulted by his Symphony No. 4